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Here’s everything you need to know about the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack and bio-terrorist Ma Anand Sheela, who led it.

Here’s the terrifying story of bioterrorist Ma Anand Sheela

In the world of television procedurals, there is almost always an episode about an impending bioterror attack. A bioterror attack is exactly what it sounds like a biological agent (usually a weaponized illness) used to attack a group of people, such as the anthrax scare back in 2001. One bioterror attack that isn’t talked about much is one of the largest to ever hit the US: the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack in Oregon. 

Why would someone do it? Who led the charge? What happened? Here’s everything you need to know about the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack and Ma Anand Sheela, who led it. 

What happened?

The town of The Dalles, Oregon was targeted by a group of members of the Rajneesh movement, which followed the teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Led by Ma Anand Sheela, the group deliberately contaminated 10 salad bars with salmonella. This led to 751 people suffering from food poisoning. While 45 were hospitalized, no one died. 

Why did this happen?

It was for political gain more than anything else. See the Rajneeshee commune members had already taken political control of a nearby town called Antelope, which was renamed Rajneesh. They wanted to build a city named Rajneeshpuram, but had trouble getting building permits from the county.

With the 1984 county election approaching, the Rajneeshee decided that they will try to influence the outcome. They wanted political control over the county so that they could do what they wanted. They needed two of three seats on the Wasco County Circuit Court and wanted control of the sheriff’s office as well.

Now biological attack wasn’t the first choice on the list. Instead, they instituted a “Share-a-Home” program where they brought in thousands of homeless people to Rajneeshpuram so they could pad out their voting numbers. The county clerk countered by saying all new voters had to submit their qualifications when registering to vote. 

Who is Ma Anand Sheela?

Sheela was Rajneesh’s right-hand woman. She spearheaded the creation of Rajneeshpuram nearly single-handedly. While Rajneesh was the leader, Sheela wielded significant power as well. When the government stopped her plans to use the homeless to inflate the votes, Sheela and a group of her closest confidantes came up with the plan. 

Sheela and her followers turned one of the buildings into a bio-lab. They made the salmonella from Seattle and mixed it into a concoction called “salsa”. Throughout The Dalles, members sprayed the “salsa” everywhere. 

Rather than just the members of the town getting ill, however, it went statewide. In the end, it didn’t even work. No one wanted the Rajneeshee to win so they turned out in droves for the election. Eventually, the Rajneeshee just withdrew their candidate. Plus out of the 7,000 people on the commune, only 239 voted. Most weren’t even US citizens and so couldn’t vote even if they wanted to. 

While the outbreak was originally believed to be due to the mishandling of the food by workers, people were suspicious enough of the Rajneeshee and Sheela in particular that an investigation was pointed to them. 

What happened to Ma Anand Sheela?

Sheela, seeing the writing on the wall, fled to Europe in 1985. Rajneesh, seeing an opportunity, denounced her and put all blame on her. He even said that she was the one who wrote his works and published under his name. 

In Oct. 1986, Sheela was captured in West Germany and extradited to the US. Ma Anand Sheela pled guilty to first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault against Judge Hulse along with later to second-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault against Commissioner Matthew. She also pled guilty to setting fire to a county office and wire-tapping at the commune

Sheela was sentenced to three 20 year concurrent sentences and to pay $470,000 USD. She was released in Dec. 1988 after serving 39 months for good behavior and moved to Switzerland. Today, she blames Rajneesh for everything and says that she did what she did for the love of Rajneesh.

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